In his 1978 State of the Union address, President Jimmy Carter said “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals. It cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy. And government cannot mandate goodness.” In 1996, just months before signing a bill into law that dramatically changed how the government helps the poor, President Bill Clinton stated “The era of big government is over.” By reading those quotes, you’d think they would’ve come from Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, not two of the three most recent Democratic Presidents. It’s felt like many of our recent Democratic Presidents have had to run away from being Democrats in order to be politically viable.
This changed Monday morning, when President Obama, in his second inaugural address, made the strongest and most vocal defense of liberalism and expansive government action since President Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society initiative. In his speech, he made a passionate defense of government “entitlement” programs, saying “the commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.” He devoted an entire paragraph of his speech to climate change, a topic that many have felt is politically unviable for some time. He alluded to his initiative to curb gun violence. By all accounts, this is the most progressive speech of his Presidency.
Much of President Obama’s speech hinges on references to our nation’s history. One of the most prominent connections between this President and another one of our past Presidents comes through their historical allusions.